Using Questioning as a Tool to Stimulate Deeper Thinking

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What’s one of the most important elements of any dialogue or discussion? If you were thinking the exchange of ideas or the asking and answering of questions, you’re absolutely right.  Questions such as, “May I have your telephone number?”, or “Will you marry me?”, are important ways information  is exchanged in everyday life. Of course, classroom dialogue or discussion is the main mode of information exchange in the classroom.  The lifeblood of such dialogue is the posing and responding to questions.

I am not sure if you’re challenged with this, but I see many teachers ask questions, accept the first right answer from one of the few students who answers most of the questions, and move right on to the next question.  What’s even worse is that more often than not, the questions they ask are usually on the lowest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy or level 1 from Webb’s Depth of Knowledge.  These are the types of questions which have students recall facts or pulling something from rote memory.

How Can You Use Questions To Stimulate Students To Think Deeper About Content?

An essential first step in using questioning to stimulate deeper student thought is to create a culture in the classroom where students feel “intellectually safe” to exchange ideas.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience when you were in school, answered a question and were ridiculed by peers who didn’t feel your response measured up.  The point is, it’s critical to initially create an intellectually safe environment where responses and questions are not subject to ridicule and students are not teased or intimidated when participating in such discussions.

A second step in shaping your culture is placing an emphasis on processes to get there versus the production of right answers.  This is one in which the teacher makes it clear that he/she values more highly students thinking, then discussing and elaborating on ideas as opposed to being consumed with someone just saying the right answer in order to save time and that the discussion can just be moved on.  For instance, if you asked students to decide which math fraction ( 2/5 or ¾) was greatest.  In classrooms which value the right answers and do little to stimulate higher level thinking, the teacher simply calls on the first hand up and moves on to the next problem after hearing that ¾ is the greater of the two.  Conversely, in a classroom culture which emphasizes the process, the teacher would ask them to justify how they arrived at that answer, ask who agrees or disagrees, and asks others to share their method for finding the greatest fraction.

Engage them by frequently questioning them about content which resides in their world.  Students are less likely to engage in higher cognitive processes if they find content irrelevant, meaningless, and uninteresting to them.  Sometimes I used the S.E.L.F. checklist when formulating questions to entice them to wrap their thoughts around the content. That is, I sought ways to frame content in questions which probed something they’ve S- seen, E – experienced, L – like, or F- felt.

Use a greater ratio of open-ended versus close-ended questions to have them think deeper about ideas which require more than a simplistic or quick response.  As you may recall, close-ended questions are often answered with either one word answers or short-phrases.  Open-ended questions compel students to elaborate and often require thoughtful reflection to respond.  An example of a close-ended question   is, “Who was the 32nd president of the United States?” and an example of an open-ended question is “Do you think Franklin Roosevelt was one of the most effective presidents of the United States? Support your answer with details.”

Help your students develop metacognitive thought processes to not only become more cognizant of their own thinking but to also strategically direct it. Simply put, metacognition is thinking about what one is thinking.  Two components of metacognition are thoughts about what one currently knows (reflection) and self-regulation or being able to strategically control the processes of learning new things.  Creating a culture in the classroom which embraces revision and reflective thinking is an aspect of metacognitive learning.  Assisting them with developing questions such as, “In what ways can I explain this in ways which will help my peers understand?” and “What do I not know that you know?” helps make thinking visible and also helps students become more metacognitively aware.  Questions probing students to formulate predictions, evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of their own work, and determine the extent to which they have learned something help students regulate their own work and reflect on what was learned.

In closing, strategically questioning in ways to stimulate deeper cognitive processes gives you a greater chance of helping them learn more and is also characteristic of academically rigorous teaching and learning.  Shaping a classroom culture in which students feel intellectually safe to answer questions and culture that emphasizes thought processes versus producing right answers are important first steps.  More frequent use of open-ended questions and framing questions around elements from their world invite higher cognitive processes to begin as well.  Help students think about their thoughts through the development of metacognitive processes in your practice.

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